Feminism and Architecture

Feminism and Architecture

Reviews: Symposia

Feminism and Architecture

Rebuttal to Deborah Richmond

Parsons New School of Design
April 4, 2015
By Marta Rodriguez
The Caravan, Pierre Jeanneret & Jean Prouvé (1939)
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Originally published by sub_teXXt, the online journal of architeXX

Deborah Richmond’s recent account of her experience attending the Parsons School of Constructed Environments conference, “Feminism and Architecture,” featured last month on Journal of Architectural Education online made several interesting conclusions on what she perceived as the weakness of the conference and of the impact of women in architecture. Deborah argues that “appropriating and aggrandizing the smaller bits and edges of architecture, where the battle for creative leadership is more easily won” is misdirected and therefore somehow un-impactful on the future of the profession. She argues, furthermore, that “furniture” is not architecture. While I am delighted to find my “Petite Architecture: Charlotte Perriand & Kazuyo Sejima” mentioned in her review, I fear she missed the main message of my presentation.
 
Perriand and Sejima, the two women at the heart of my talk, epitomize successful women architects who revolutionized and transformed architecture. These two women were on the frontlines and not the margins of the profession. Perriand and Sejima are two heroines—alternative to the single hero of Bigness—who started at the small scale and then extrapolated their work to design big, as Perriand used to say, “from teaspoon to the city.” Sejima would be surprised to learn that “furniture is not architecture.” Part of me hopes Deborah reaches out to her directly to let her know.
 

Pumpkin House, Kenji Ekuan (1964)
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Architects, as a creative platform on which to expand and grow their craft, have always designed gorgeous “little” things from which they draw inspiration based on experimentation and innovation. Mirrors (Eileen Gray), delightful little eyeglasses (Kimiko Inui), cool shoes (Zaha Hadid), or silverware (Toyo Ito) are few examples that easily come to my mind. 

The impact and importance of the “smaller bits and edges of architecture” have not been sufficiently studied precisely for the reason Deborah implied: “too teeny weeny for the big ol’ brawny boys making the important buildings.” Perhaps the two examples of women still designing objects at the height of their power might make people pause and rethink their position. Furniture and interiors, after all, were the source of innovation in Europe in the 1920s and in Japan in the 1980s.
 
My term "Petite Architecture" refers to objects that conflate residence, machine and furniture, and have sensuality as a distinctive feature. "’Petite’ is a small word for a big concept," J. M. Prada Poole correctly noted. Maybe architects evolve and learn from beautiful things. Men such as Jean Prouvé, Pierre Jeanneret, Albert Frey, Kenji Ekuan, or Sou Fujimoto have all designed petite architecture. Petite impacts architecture as a whole regardless time, place, or gender.
 
Toyo Ito agreed with M. McLuhan who said, "our clothing and shelter are the extended form of our skin." Coco Chanel claimed "fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions." Small is not only beautiful, small implies experimentation, revolution, ecology, economy, efficiency, and intimacy. Small things make a big impact! In fact, last year at the Venice Biennale, Koolhaas stated, "Because I wanted to talk about architecture, I dismantled architecture into its smallest parts." Now is the time to examine the essence of architecture in the age of the iPhone.

Finally, Perriand and Sejima are beacons of strength and courage for women everywhere. To follow the path Perriand made to success in pre-war Japan or to observe how Sejima changed her outfit from black to flower patterns, as a result of her liberation, might lead us to find clues from which to broaden our concept of feminism. Indeed we might find that part of what Perriand and Sejima contributed to architecture was rooted in the fact that they were women.
 
Don’t pull the bottom rungs out of the ladder, Deborah! The feminist tent might be bigger than you think!
 

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